Human Rights Council opens its 19th session with focus on the situation in Syria
Monday, 27 February 2012 19:29


The escalating situation in Syria and the international community’s timid response dominated the opening of the Human Rights Council’s (the Council’s) March session in Geneva on 27 February. At the end of its first meeting, the Council decided by consensus to hold an further ‘urgent debate’ on the situation in Syria on 28 February, despite signs of dismay by the Russian Federation and Cuba.


The situation in Syria was one of the key preoccupations during the address of the President of the General Assembly (PGA), Mr Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, who pointed to the concerns expressed by ‘an overwhelming number’ of States in the General Assembly in respect to the ongoing killings and human rights violations in the country. Several other high-level speakers echoed these concerns during the first meeting of this session of the Council, including the President of the Federal Council of Switzerland, the Vice-President of Colombia, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, the Minister of State and Foreign Affairs of Qatar, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, and the President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.



The Council’s decision to hold an urgent debate on the situation in Syria was questioned by the Russian Federation and Cuba. They both took the floor to state that they would not object to the meeting, but expressed hopes that the debate would be ‘objective.’ The Russian Federation added that any written document resulting from the debate would be ‘counter-productive’ as a means of resolving the crisis in Syria. Cuba stressed that the debate should not be used as a pretext to endorse military action in the region, stressing the need to respect the sovereignty of States.


The PGA in turn praised the Council for the ‘effective’ efforts it had made in the case of Syria, pointing to the three special sessions that the Council has held on the State to date. However, he also encouraged the Council to consider ‘creative approaches’ for dealing with situations of conflict or opposing views, such as mediation. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navaneetham Pillay, also noted the Council's increasing responsiveness to violations of human rights on the ground. She added, however, that the Council must improve its follow-up to recommendations it makes to States and develop ways of ensuring that States cooperate with the Council and comply with those recommendations. 


A number of other notable themes were raised during the debate. The High Commissioner pointed to the greater involvement of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in monitoring the human rights situation on the ground. She particularly emphasised the role of human rights defenders in supplying field presences with the information needed to react quickly to developing situations. Unfortunately, as she went on to relate, many of these individuals continue to suffer reprisals and intimidation on the basis of their engagement with the UN, and she called for increased efforts to protect those who seek to expose human rights violations.


The High Commissioner drew the Council's attention to the report it is due to consider at this session on discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. She praised the Council's readiness to discuss all human rights issues, even those that may be controversial. The Council will hold a panel discussion on sexual orientation, gender identity, and human rights on 7 March.


Finally, the PGA referred to the recent adoption by the General Assembly of a controversial resolution on treaty body strengthening. It requests the PGA to launch an inter-governmental process to conduct negotiations on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the treaty body system. During his address to the Council the PGA welcomed this resolution, pointing to it as a useful example of dialogue between Geneva and New York. He expressed his belief that the implementation of the resolution ‘will serve as an important contribution to strengthening the international protection and promotion of human rights’. During a separate meeting with NGOs, the PGA sent a positive signal by expressing its principled support for the participation of civil society in UN processes and saying that ‘no dialogue is complete without the voice of civil society’.


The four-week session of the Council will continue with several days of ‘high-level segment’, during which a number of State dignitaries will address the body. During the actual session, a number of important thematic and country specific debates will be held, including panel discussions on freedom of expression and the Internet, and discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. See ISHR’s Council Alert for more details, and follow the session through ISHR’s email or twitter updates @ISHRglobal.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 28 February 2012 17:05
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